Eight core principles of Housing First,” Housing First Europe

March 11, 2019; Fast Company

Homelessness is not a problem with a one-size-fits-all answer. Solutions to homelessness are complicated, and so news that a nonprofit program called Built for Zero has helped three communities end chronic homelessness might be met with some skepticism.

Of course, NPQ has long covered another approach to ending chronic homelessness that is widely known as “Housing First.” As NPQ’s Rick Cohen noted a few years ago, citing the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Housing First is an approach that “offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness.”

The approach, Cohen added, works, but not in all cases; it “must be adapted to local conditions, and must be followed by the provision of education, employment, and human services to the re-housed homeless residents.”

What’s the innovation behind Built for Zero? What the program seeks to add is the use of data to track people, which can be both helpful and disconcerting. (Even that aspect of the program is not entirely new.) New or not, pilots of this particular program scheme have now been run in the smallish city of Abilene, Texas—home to close to 122,000—and two larger counties: Bergen County, New Jersey, home to 950,000; and Montgomery County, Maryland, with close to 1.06 million people.

While Abilene might be fairly representative of communities of its size, with a median household income of $46,000 and a poverty rate of 17.3 percent, Bergen and Montgomery are anything but, with each having poverty rates of seven percent or lower and with median household incomes above $90,000.

But the pilot will soon be expanded, as New York City-based nonprofit Community Solutions aims to expand its model to work in 50 communities, with the goal of getting homelessness “to a place where it’s rare, brief, and it gets solved correctly and quickly when it does happen,” according to Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, the nonprofit that leads Built for Zero. The nonprofit calls this goal “functional zero.”

Community Solutions partnered in 2015 with the Tableau Foundation to develop the database at the core of Built for Zero. The company saw the alignment between their work and the goals of Community Solutions.

“For decades, homelessness organizations would collect data, and they would send it to HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development]” says Neal Myrick, global head of the Tableau Foundation. “Once a year, HUD would produce a massive report that nobody was really reading. And the information wasn’t really usable to the people who needed it on the ground to make active decisions about what to do day-to-day to better solve the problem.”

What seems to drive the program’s pilot successes? Clearly, it builds on Housing First principles, but with the added element of focusing individualized data to better tailor housing and wrap-around services.

But what does this database mean for issues of privacy, and what of so many agencies’ access to it? Does this include the police? Does this include federal agencies like Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE)? These are some of the fears that homeless advocates express about Built for Zero’s data approach. Advocates for women in domestic violence shelters might also be concerned to have their names in this kind of database for many reasons. For its part, those involved in the Built for Zero program indicate that law enforcement is involved as part of a local team in problem solving, but do not have access to the data; Built for Zero program staff add that at least to date there have been no known cases of data abuse.

With much of the work in this program resulting in individual solutions, efforts have been made by Community Solutions to ensure that others do not have to reinvent the wheel.

All of these local successes get turned into mini case studies and are logged in Built for Zero’s menu of strategies. So, if a community partner wants to know how to do effective street outreach or improve housing retention or get more landlords to accept people who have been homeless as tenants, there’s an inventory of proven ideas to draw from.

Contrast this to the California conservatorship/guardianship program that NPQ wrote about in February, which removes homeless persons from the streets and puts others, usually the state, in charge of their “well-being.” The results of these kinds of efforts may see more people losing their rights as states search for solutions to help those without permanent places to live. While Built for Zero may not be perfect, at least the veterans and others who find themselves looking for shelter are given a name, a face, and a sense of dignity.

As Adele Peters writes for Fast Company,

To date, nine communities have reached the goal of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, and three communities have reached the goal for chronic homelessness. Another 39 have made measurable progress toward those goals by gathering meaningful data. The Tableau Foundation is now committing more than $1.3 million in software, services, and funding to help 50 communities that are currently involved in the program to accelerate their progress, with the aim to help 13 achieve functional zero goals by the end of the year. “We thought by focusing on the 50 cities it would become a tipping point, where the discussion around whether or not homelessness could be solved really was put to rest,” says Myrick. “It becomes more about, how are we going to solve it? With limited resources for everything, we think it’s really important to just start solving the problems that can be solved.

It’s hard to see what’s new in this approach, but there is nothing at all wrong with retuning what is tried and true towards better outcomes. The three pilots are promising, but the same level of success may not occur in every community. Taking on the issue of homelessness in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or any large metropolitan area may challenge the collaborative model and database-driven individuality of this program. But flexibility seems to be an integral part of how this program has evolved. And there are many who would hope that this is just the beginning of solutions for many sticky problems that need some real collaboration to resolve.—Carole Levine and Steve Dubb